Money & Politics

Breaking the Fourth Wall of Democracy

In an election when our political system has been on trial, Donald Trump is putting it to the ultimate test.

Breaking the Fourth Wall of Democracy

In many US states there is no guarantee that international observers will be allowed in polling stations. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The third debate between between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was troubling. As many commentators said, Trump broke one of our last taboos by refusing to say he will accept the outcome of the American election. He has been flirting and winking at this position for a week as he told attendees at his rallies that the election is being “rigged.” But now he said this on a national stage with millions watching.

The 2016 race has been an campaign in which democracy itself has continually been a topic of debate. For example, Harvard law professor Larry Lessig’s brief run for the Democratic nomination, as well as the unexpectedly longer one of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), featured deep and thoughtful critiques about the way American elections are structured. As candidates Lessig and Sanders pointed out — and as I examine in my book Corporate Citizen? — privately funded elections can privilege the interests of the few over the interests of the many.

I agree with how Lessig has characterized our democracy in his book Republic Lost: There is a “money election,” which has a disproportionate impact on who can even stand on a general election debate stage. However, I would never argue that the winner in a privately funded election was not democratically elected. Instead, what I want are elections where campaign money does not play such an outcome determinative and limiting role in our democratic process.

I won’t believe Clinton is for real reform until I see real actions.

Clinton has rhetorically embraced campaign finance reform on the campaign trail as she did at the third debate, calling out dark unaccountable money and the much reviled 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United. But she was speaking of how her potential nominee to the Supreme Court could change the jurisprudence within the normal constitutional framework.

I won’t believe Clinton is for real reform until I see some real actions: Whom does she nominate to the Federal Election Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Communications Commission? All of these agencies have overlapping jurisdiction over the dark money problem that she mentioned. For whom does she fight to fill key judicial vacancies? These will be the markers of sincerity should she win the office she seeks.

Trump’s statement showed a deep contempt for the American democratic process.

Like Jim on The Office mugging to the camera, Trump seemed to break the fourth wall of democracy at the debate last night with his unwillingness to say he would accept electoral results. I suspect that moderator Chris Wallace thought he was giving Trump a softball question: Basically, do you believe in American democracy? Wallace even asked the question a second time, giving Trump a chance to clarify or walk his answer back. Instead Trump doubled down, saying he wanted to keep us “in suspense.”

Trump’s statement showed a deep contempt for the American democratic process — in the middle of an on going election where he is a major party nominee. Note that with early voting, voters don’t have to wait until Nov. 8 to react to what they saw on that Las Vegas stage. Thanks to early voting, many voters had ballots in their hands while watching this debacle.

When the ballots are counted, whether our candidate of choice wins or not, I hope we as voters will be mature enough to swallow our pride and accept the results, as Al Gore did in 2000. Because that, in the end, is part of what democracy is. There are winners and losers: But we will all be losers if the candidates and their supporters who do not get their way don’t accept the results.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Brennan Center Fellow and a professor at Stetson University College of Law, is the author of Corporate Citizen? and Safeguarding Markets from Pernicious Pay to Play: A Model Explaining Why the SEC Regulates Money in Politics. She's a former board member of the National Institute of Money in State Politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ProfCiara.